review: The redundancy of sex in evolution: discuss

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"The lumps are what makes life interesting," said Steve Jones in Seven Wonders of the World (BBC2). This obligingly plain utterance was illustrated with a visual grace that's all too rare in television. Out of an oily sea, the very epitome of smoothness, two specks of light slowly resolved themselves and humped through the surface - it was a lump of killer whale. The way the metaphor hardened into a literal image had your attention on a hook from the very beginning.

Steve Jones does help, to be honest. He's one of those scientists who aren't beset by the scholarly terror of informality (often, in scientific terms, another name for inaccuracy) which makes him a natural for this sort of didactic parlour game. Seven scientists have been asked to nominate seven wonders, without any fussy rules about the selections being man- made. Last week Miriam Rothschild selected the Jungfrau and a parasitic worm, among other things. As a professor of genetics it wasn't surprising that Jones should also have turned largely to the natural world for his choice, nor that "Sex" should have featured high on the list.

This wasn't a confession of personal appetites (he's not shameless in his popularising) but an intellectual fascination with the apparent redundancy of sex in evolutionary terms. Why should animals go to all that trouble, asked Jones? It was a question that seemed particularly pointed in the case of hedgehogs, two of whom were shown cautiously obeying the biological imperative. More pricks than kicks there, surely. But, even for hedgehogs, it may be dangerous not to indulge. "Asexual potatoes," Jones explained, had resulted in the Irish Famine - every plant was identical, so equally susceptible to the Blight.

There's room for jokes, as well as elegant scientific sketches. After Jones's exposition of the mathematical marvels of the Parthenon, its deployment of almost invisible curves to present an image of geometrical rectitude, he cited the Appleton Tower in Edinburgh, a drab post-war tower-block. The wonder was twofold, he explained. "It's a wonder that anyone allowed it to be built and a wonder that it hasn't been blown up yet." There were a couple of occasions when I could have done with the aid of a blackboard - although I believed Professor Jones when he told me that Monsieur Fizeau's 19th-century experiment into the speed of light was a wonder of economy and ingenuity. I can't honestly say that I have inwardly digested the details. Nor could I entirely share his tenderness towards snails - he ran his fingers lovingly over a pile of them at one point; they looked, to my queasy eye, like mint humbugs with large pieces of snot stuck to them. But the overall effect was captivating - a mind at play with ideas. The spirit lifts at the prospect of his six-part series on genetics, currently filming and due early next year.

In soaps a life-support machine is often a sign of staff problems; the prospect of a terminal illness having been shown to have a remarkably bracing effect on recalcitrant cast-members. What winter of discontent, you wonder, is taking place in the Liverpool offices of Brookside (C4), where a mystery virus has been cutting a swathe through the local population? Thomas Farnham was reprieved last night (too young to get really stroppy, perhaps) but Jean Crosby seems to be a goner; last night's episode contained one of those self-conscious solo arias, in this case Bing, confessing his infidelities to her lifeless body. Naturally I'll watch to see who hits the deck next but the whole thing is upsettingly preposterous. Despite four mysterious deaths and a sealed-off estate, the national press doesn't seem to have noticed yet. Besides, even if all soap editors are artistic tyrants, given power of life and death, it's reasonable to expect some restraint - not Idi Amin in a filthy temper.

Comments